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Hongkongers keep community spirit alive as bulldozers move in

Retired primary school teacher Sara Yau Wan-sin, better known to customers as Mrs Kwok, runs a cha chaan teng in To Kwa Wan with her husband. Chee Mei Ho Sik Centre, on Chun Tin Street, may be small, but it’s a much-loved haven among local residents.

Most of Yau’s customers in the ageing Kowloon East neighbourhood are regulars, and she knows them by name, engaging in small talk as they come and go. Five Pakistanis who live nearby visit every day for the Hong Kong tea shop’s signature milk tea, because it reminds them of a popular drink back in Pakistan. A customer who has no small change is told to pay the next time he drops by.

For workers in the area, many of them labourers, Yau bulks up on the rice or toppings at no extra cost. She hands over takeaway boxes of fried rice and noodles to elderly and poor neighbours for a token HK$5. Such is the community spirit in working-class To Kwa Wan.

Part of the area’s charm is its scarcity of cookie-cutter shopping malls, chain stores and restaurants. Most shops in To Kwa Wan are small, family-run businesses.

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Some of its old industrial buildings are occupied by traditional craft workshops, hardware stores, car mechanics and small manufacturing businesses that have been tenants since the 1950s. A small number have been renovated by operators of gold and jewellery businesses, all providing employment for the local community.

Yau’s cha chaan teng has been a mainstay on Chun Tin Street for more than 30 years, thanks in part to the landlord who has not raised Yau’s rent for the past two decades. But she cannot survive the march of progress. Yau is being forced to shut up shop to make way for redevelopment spearheaded by the Urban Renewal Authority (URA), which plans to replace the run-down, mid-rise residential buildings – mostly no higher than 10 storeys – with modern high-rises. Residents will be offered financial compensation or public housing.

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To Kwa Wan and its surroundings were little more than scattered villages until the 1950s, when low-density factories and residential buildings sprung from the seeds of Hong Kong’s manufacturing boom.

Since the 1980s, however, when industry moved to China, there has been little new development in the crumbling, long-neglected area, where most buildings are over 50 years old. In 2010, a dilapidated building in Ma Tau Wai Road collapsed during work on an illegal ground-floor structure. Four people died in the incident, which happened just around the corner from Yau’s cha chaan teng.

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The URA has a total of 15 projects planned for Ma Tau Kok, Hung Hom and To Kwa Wan – all administratively part of Kowloon City district – bundled in an ambitious HK$10 billion renewal plan.

The project also dovetails with the extension of the MTR Kwun Tong line to the area. Stations in Ho Man Tin and Whampoa are scheduled to open later this month, with To Kwa Wan station following three years later – the delay caused by the discovery of a well and relics from either the Song (AD960-1279) or Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties.

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The Transport Department plans to scale back or axe cheaper double-decker and minibus services once the line is in operation.

In the face of local objections to the redevelopment plan, the URA has promised to take a “district-based renewal approach” to better maintain the urban fabric of To Kwa Wan, which is already experiencing signs of gentrification. Rising rents are wiping small family-owned restaurants and businesses off the map; tenants of subdivided flats have reportedly returned home to find their front doors locked, the owners having sold the properties to developers.

Some residents are committed to keeping the neighbourly spirit of To Kwa Wan alive, in the form of the House of To Kwa Wan Stories, also known as ToHome.

Funded by three NGOs – St James Settlement, Fixing Hong Kong and Community Cultural Concern (CCC) – ToHome’s headquarters is a former poultry shop on Hung Fook Street, in the heart of the neighbourhood. It is a tiny, cosy community space. Children come and go, borrowing bikes and board games, while elderly residents help themselves to books or fiddle with a vinyl record player. Others just come to hang out.

For the past two years, the group has been engaged in community building based on the Japanese concept of machizukuri – which means taking a bottom-up approach to shaping the development of a neighbourhood. Local residents are the main stakeholders, rather than traditional decision-makers such as the authorities, property developers or scholars.

“There are several factors that contribute to a liveable community,” says Serene Chan Chor-see, 24, an organiser of CCC. “It should be inclusive, where people of different backgrounds, races and socioeconomic class can live together and interact – not like many gated communities, where people don’t interact at all.”

The local economy is another consideration, including factors such as the survival of small businesses and shops, job opportunities for residents and shared resources.

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Another way ToHome engages the community in the machizukuri way is through arts and cultural initiatives, such as the To Kwa Wan Community Builder Scheme, in which volunteers conduct outreach and document the lives of residents through art and photographs. The scheme is entering its second year, and volunteers are hoping that more residents will become involved.

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One challenge in strengthening a close-knit community in To Kwa Wan stems from its racial and cultural diversity. The grass-roots neighbourhood is home to many ethnic minorities and new immigrants, attracted by relatively affordable rent and job opportunities. However, ethnic stereotyping and language barriers have been known to raise tensions.

“When people talk about a community network nowadays, they often glamorise the relationship between residents. In reality, the social network of a community is very complicated. There are definitely close relationships, but there are also conflicts and competing interests,” Chan says.

“Art provides a space for people to express themselves. And we really hope that the workshops give residents from different backgrounds a chance to communicate. That’s why we hold activities such as storytelling and a human library, where people read one another like a book. This helps them understand where each of us comes from, foster empathy and resolve any misunderstandings.”

One activity is a regular Urdu class taught by a Pakistani immigrant. She started the lessons in the hope of improving neighbourly relations.

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The community envisioned by ToHome may sound idealistic, but the group is not out of touch with reality. Knowing that most members of the community in To Kwa Wan are working class and struggling to get by, with little time for artistic endeavours, the group of 70 or so volunteers also offers basic practical assistance through an initiative called Fixing Hong Kong.

Volunteers patrol the neighbourhood in search of residents in need, offering to repair furniture and home appliances for free. They meet at ToHome headquarters every Wednesday evening before setting off in pairs to visit homes where they can be of use. While one does the repair work, the other volunteer chats with the family to learn more about their situation.

As their reputation grows, so does the number of requests for help. As word spreads, the team has amassed a growing number of members keen to contribute whatever skills they possess.

Cultivating a community is a long and slow process. Although the work of ToHome is bearing fruit, the group is also in a race against time and will soon be put to the test. Just as the neighbourhood faces the uncertainties of looming revitalisation, so does ToHome.

Hung Fook Street, where ToHome is based, is within the URA’s redevelopment zone, although its residents and businesses are still awaiting notice of its date with the wrecking ball.

The volunteers know there is every chance that whatever work they have been doing will be rendered null and void as residents are displaced to other areas, but Chan has faith that their efforts can snowball and that – despite the odds – they can battle gentrification and preserve the community.

“We really hope that in the end, every single resident’s voice can be heard. Because they are the only ones who know what this community needs and how it can change for the better.”